All I knew when I set out the other day was that I wanted to take a long walk. To where I was not sure. So I started walking, determined to navigate my way through small, side streets and not worry that they wouldn’t take me in the “right” direction. First south, behind the Russell Square tube station, past the small horse hospital, and not quite east enough to reach my favorite stretch of road, Lamb’s Conduit Street. I walked past Theobald, down to Holborn and walked east with the masses for a small stretch while looking for an escape hatch in the form of a Close or a Mews or Passage or Run. Tucked behind a bit of scaffolding, a tiny sliver of a walkway revealed itself, much like I imagine Diagon Alley would make itself known to the knowing few who can recognize the gait of those emerging from its bounds. I slipped in as others slipped out and guessed that I was still walking south when I saw what looked like the promise of light reflecting off of the Thames just beyond the iron gate surrounding a residential garden that was lined on all sides by buildings whose facades displayed a symphony of complementary architectural periods. At one juncture, I marveled at my discovery of yet another unexpected juxtaposition of ornate buildings that sat adjacent to an open and inviting park. Just then, a group of four teenagers crossed in front of me carrying boxes full of items, all talking and laughing as they walked through the open, formidable looking iron gates leading into another complex of Victorian looking buildings. It was then that I remembered that most schools are on a holiday break, which explains the increased numbers of unattended adolescents and parents with small children wandering the streets mid-day sans uniforms.
A few more twists and turns past the Old Temple church turned me out onto Carey Street whereupon I found myself in the proximity of not one but two legal bookshops. Who knows why I opted to walk into the smaller one, especially since I despise being the lone patron in a small and closely attended retail establishment. Too much pressure to purchase something. But in I walked with no idea that I was in for what might be considered a cosmopolitan-minded exercise in provinciality.
Seated behind a tall, wooden counter was a man with a head full of white hair wearing a light blue button-down shirt and dark blue tie to match his lightweight wool trousers. He looked up at me expectantly, but without an air of hovering that some salespeople can manage from even several feet away. His eyes, also blue but in a hue a bit darker than his shirt, looked past the lenses of his rectangular, black, horn-rimmed frames as his eyebrows slowly arched. Have you any books about youth law, I asked with an upward inflection in my voice toward the end of the phrase, thus inadvertently taking on the speech patterns of those around me — it’s a habit, this accidental… mimcry? assimilation? survival technique? most likely dating back to my days as a four-year-old, non-English speaker in a foreign country who was desperate to fit in, so I devoured this new language in its entirety; so long lasting was this linguistic voraciousness, I think I might have been the only 8th grader who relished the chance to diagram sentences. This inflection that sneaks out that is no choice at all — as if we can choose to duck when an object comes flying at us. Linguistic assimilation has become a reflex. And my friends from whom I borrow freely and whose dalliances with diction I adopt readily have not disowned me…yet!
In this instance, then, I think I was thankful for this tendency. The white haired man sitting behind the wooden counter recast my inquiry as a search for books on youth “court,” which I initially heard as “youth cult.” He did so with a smirk, an indication, perhaps, that the next few minutes would be anything other than a routine exchange between patron and salesperson. I nodded as he got up and began to scour the shelves while I was preparing to leave in case the search was fruitless. As he searched, he returned to the computer behind the counter three separate times. According to the inventory, the book store had a single copy of a particular book about youth court in stock on the shelves, however it was escaping his line of sight for the moment. As he searched he informed me that a new shelving system had been put in place, thereby rendering the shelves essentially useless. “Modern” is what he called it, referring to the new alphabetic sub-categorization within a revised subject organization. Had the change just happened, I wondered out loud. No, 18 months ago.
By this point, at least 5 or 6 minutes had transpired. Too many, it seemed, to call off the search without seeming impolite. Finally, success! He handed me a thick, teal covered volume about the British Youth Court. As I began to thumb through it, the gentleman asked whether there was something they, presumably Brits, could learn from us, that is to say Americans. Although the exchange was initially more puzzling and went like this:
Salesman: Do you practice law here?
Me: No, I’m here on leave for a few months. I’m a professor in the States studying youth justice as part of my work.
Salesman: Can we learn anything from you?
Me: [pointing at myself with in a manner, I thought, of humorous self-effacing] From me? [smile]
Salesman: Well no, not you, but what you’re all doing over there in America.
Further indication that irony and sarcasm were not the mainstays of my conversation partner. Just as mention of my teaching side engenders generative responses, both positive and negative, of one’s own educational aspirations and experiences, mention of my interest in youth and justice consistently elicits perspectives that on the surface might be dismissed or clumped together as myopic or discriminatory without basis. Yes, this would be the easy conclusion. But on this day, draped with my ethnographer’s mantle, I listened as initial few utterances about “the problems we have in England” gradually grew into a set of hesitantly shared but deep seated concerns about the practice of people with whom the salesman shared a geography. Some of these musings, I suspect, were further catalyzed when I mentioned my interest in detention alternatives. Once again, his eyebrows danced so I inquired: What’s happening in this country (UK) with incarceration and alternatives? Not much, there’s just not much happening except more problems, he told me. We quickly moved from law enforcement to what seemed to be at the heart of this man’s perturbations: a general breakdown of society, of the order with which he was familiar, clear distinctions about roles (gender, age, societal). I did not get the sense that this man came from a particularly well-to-do background, and as we talked some more, his perceptions
Among the observations this citizen has made of his fellow Brits is evident in the country’s children. Children, increasingly, have no home training. Evidence for this claim was offered in the form of another short anecdote: when families of bankers are taken out for office parties around the holidays, they don’t know how to “be” in the world; They go to fancy eating establishments and order a “tom-ah-to sauce sandwich!” This was said with such utter disbelief that I had to research it to fully understand why this particular culinary choice engendered such social disgust in this man. From the limited information available on Google, I gather that this is the equivalent of ketchup on bread and indicative of social practices more prevalent in communities where economics pose challenges. What sometimes originates as a technique of survival can become sustained as cultural practice over generations. The danger in interpreting these practices is twofold: an outsider may view a practitioner of such practices with disapproval, but an insider may also cast aspersions upon someone who may be seen as denying their “true path.” Presumed familiarity can be just as deadly as presumed difference. An answer to this might be — and then he paused before saying, “Now you might not like this” at which point I was determined to like, or at least receive in a measured fashion whatever came out of his mouth next: “But these problems started when mothers started going to work.” The answer, or an answer, claimed the salesman, was for mothers to stay at home for the first five years of a child’s life so that they can learn how to talk, how to eat — eating properly was a go to indicator of social “place” for this man — and my suggestion (because I wanted to keep him talking rather than shutting down this exchange) that perhaps children needed one parent, mother or father, was met with the only abrupt moment in our conversation: No, it must be the mother. I offered a general statement about the value of the European practice of extended family leave as something that helps to address this issue — including creches in France that my French teacher spoke about with fondness — although this observation was met with a simple, “Well that’s not fair on the employer.” So clearly it must be the mother. We talked briefly about how children’s sense of place in the world is formed, and whether there is one way to accomplish this or whether there may be many ways. What if both parents need to work, for example, I asked. Both of my parents worked after we emigrated to the United States, and it was my grandmother who stayed home with me and my siblings. And I didn’t think I was any worse for the wear. [smile]
He posed a question to me that I myself wonder when I suggested that families often need two incomes: Do they really? That is, have we as a world society built up so many things as “needs” that are really “wants” that we have inflated the urgency of how much money constitutes the minimum? What does it mean to live a fulfilled life? And has Apple convinced too many of us that we need gadgets and gizmos for our basic survival? Are these the tools of the art of living? It is also the case, as we both agreed, that the spectrum of wasteful spending exists across communities, across individuals, nations; and that true survival challenges exist. But he offered himself as an example, stating that his family consisting of three children and two parents and one income, made do and did so often. That is, his mother would “cut a broad cloth into three, four shirts, pants” suggesting what I’ve heard many people of an older generation say in response to the seemingly increasing materiality of younger generations’ lives: We/They’ve lost the ability to stretch a dollar, or pound in this case. Part of me continued to push and wonder aloud about inflation and challenges in acquiring basic needs, yet the other part of me had to acknowledge that I, too, work hard to maintain a simple life. One that includes no car, plenty of coupons, and manageable indulgences. Is it the difference, perhaps, of having the luxury to imagine and maintain a way of life versus having to survive each day? This is not “simply” a distinction of social class affordances and privileges, although that certainly laid the implicit foundation for the afternoon’s spontaneous discussion.
The goal is maybe to identify — to do so, perhaps, a bit dispassionately, and I’m as surprised as anyone to hear myself use that word — roots of particular societal phenomena that cause consternation, and to distinguish these from the low hanging fruit that are tossed about freely. For instance: Access to internships and apprenticeship opportunities might be widened for larger numbers of young people so that they can begin imagine, earlier on, a way of living and contributing to their immediate and broader worlds. This is different than bemoaning “disaffected youth” who then come to be characterized as adults who are a “drain on society” and uninformed opinions become the stuff of truth when individuals and communities are routinely cast with the infantilizing dye of the problematic victimization. But more than that, the world is missing the creative input from so many youth by virtue of lack of access — a lack that goes back ways.
The salesman also offered a riff on education. Adults, he said, who are in their 40s now, came up through the education system in the 1960s and 1970s during which time all sense of instruction and hierarchy was thrown out in favor of an anything goes approach. Teachers were not “Mr. so and so” but became, suddenly, “Just call me Gary.” This easily marks users of particular speech patterns as different, as evidence of the aforementioned societal breakdown. Then he paused again before offering his next educational example and, I suspect because he had heard enough of my speech pattern, proposed that I probably say the phrase “Fed up with it.” If I were inclined to have that emotion, I might use that phrase, I said. Some of these adults of 1970s education say instead “Fed up of it.” His head is fully shaking from side to side and a smirk is plastered on his face as he says this. They never learned to write and they barely learned to speak, he says.
Editorial: These were the words of someone who sees the ample differences between him and people around him. As I said, it would be too easy to simply label him with the most fitting –ism. These were not arbitrary arguments he offered, but ones that have been cultivated over a lifetime of interactions, observations, and experiences. The filters with which we see our worlds are not easily switched. And if we might hope something different for this man or others who share equally seemingly unyielding perspectives about others they can only view as different from themselves, then those of us in positions to say something about the world have a responsibility to do so in a measured fashion — that is not necessarily free from passion but also resisting the urge to use the academic pulpit as a site from which to simply incite anything without conviction to something. My conversation with this salesman of 30+ years, who by the way did not insist I purchase the Youth Court book because there is after all another edition coming out later this year, was instructive. I left feeling hopeful because ours had been a dialogue of civility and inquiry. Can a cosmopolitan imagination take seed within the provinciality we all possess? Can we allow ideas outside of those we hold close to suggest new realities about the world?
I take from this conversation another simple lesson: sometimes, people just want to be heard. That comment isn’t meant to be patronizing, but rather affirming and said as a way to converge the interests of disparate citizens of the world. John Berger wrote, “To be desired is perhaps the closest anybody in this life can reach to feeling immortal.” Could it be that “to be heard” is what we crave in mortal dealings?
As I prepared to leave and thanked him for his help and the chat, the salesman responded with a rare instance of self-effacing clarity, “You can finally be on your way now — you’ll probably have a laugh about the crazy old man in the book shop with your friends later.” Smile, wave, eyes back to the computer.
Postscript. I thought of the bookshop salesman while attending a seminar yesterday. The speaker was talking about the many ways we humans make meaning, and not only through our written or spoken words and yet these are the ways of meaning making that are (unfairly) given the privileged status in formal institutions such as schools. She made a simple point: If all of our actions and practices are imbued with meaning, intentional and otherwise, then there is nothing that is truly free from meaning. Nothing, therefore, is meaningless. By extension no one is meaningless, nor is anyone not worthy of the time and attention it takes to have meaningful human interaction; all human interaction, intentional and otherwise, might be seen as meaning-full. It’s the value we place on the meanings that gets us into trouble.
Nothing is meaningless.